Antietam Creek, Maryland. Near the Rohrbach Farm. September 16, 1862.
“Colonel Clark, I have instructions from General Sturgis, sir.”
William did not look up from his small table. “One moment, please, Mr. Willard.” He continued writing.
Adjutant Willard waited patiently under the raised flap of the Colonel’s tent. Next to him stood Lieutenant Colonel Foster and Major Hawkes, who did not seem to share his patience.
William’s pen flew:
Now there are three men talking to me as I write, and so I must finish quickly. I tried to find Manross yesterday, but could not. You would be amazed how difficult it can be to locate a unit when this army is in motion. I pray he is well. There will be a battle tomorrow. May God grant us victory for the sake of the slave, for republican institutions, and for His own glory. The cause is a good one and if I die on the battlefield at the head of my regiment, you need never be ashamed, nor should you mourn greatly for me remembering that it is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country. But I trust I may return to cheer and care for you and our dear children. Not as I will, however, but as God wills. You must be very lonesome. Never mind, Linnie, this is a world and a time of trouble. Be jolly. “A merry heart doeth good like medicine.” Kiss Artie and Mellie for me and see that they do not forget their papa. Tell Mellie she must be very good and kind in Papa’s bed and not kick Mama. And what exhortation shall I give you? “Be of good courage and He shall strengthen thine heart.”
Your loving husband,
“And now, Lieutenant, since you bear news from our gallant General, you shall be first.” William put down his pen and folded the letter.
There was a distant thud, and a shell whistled over the camp. The young Adjutant stepped forward, “The General desires that two companies from the brigade be detached as guards to the rebel prisoners back at the mountain pass. Colonel Ferrero has selected the Twenty-first.”
William pressed a hand to his brow. The Twenty-first was already the smallest regiment in the brigade. Ferrero had now left them perhaps a hundred and fifty men. “Very well. Have Captain Hovey take companies D and I and report to General Sturgis.” He sighed. “We’ll be in command of a platoon before long.” He wondered, could that be what Ferrero wants?
William leaned back in his chair. Their camp overlooked a valley through which ran Antietam Creek, less than a mile from where he sat. The creek wound through the deep ravine like a line of fire, reflecting the reddish light of the setting sun. On the other side the land rose almost vertically. The heights were crowned with haystacks, and beyond were the spires of Sharpsburg. A rebel battery was perched there on the opposite elevation. As William watched, there was suddenly a plume of smoke, followed by another distant thud. Again a shell wailed overhead.
All day they had been waiting, shifting camps as the generals arranged the army for a great assault. Early in the morning, when the valley was fresh and bright, he had fully expected, even wanted, a battle. They would cross that thin ribbon of water and clamber up to those haystacks. But the orders did not come. Waiting, his regiment ready, looking across that charged space between the heights. The order never came. How many rebels were concealed in the rolling fields on the opposite elevation? How deeply were they entrenched? As the hours passed, he could feel them settling into the earth around Sharpsburg like a sickness.
There was a small stone bridge which spanned the creek in front of them. William had watched it all afternoon. He felt something turn in his stomach each time he saw it. It was strange to look upon a piece of ground and to know that soon there would be men dying on it. His men. Maybe him.
William sat up straight and returned his attention to his officers. “Yes, of course, gentlemen. What have you for me?”
Major Hawkes placed a small stack of paper on his writing table, “The discharges, sir, for the men wounded at the mountain pass.”
William began to sign them. He continued to glance at the bridge. It was fading into gloom as shadows lengthened. “We’ll cross there tomorrow, gentlemen,” he said as he continued to sign. “If the creek cannot be forded, we’ll have to take it.” The officers stared at it. “But then, as they say, you can’t most always tell sometimes what’ll be done.” He grinned.
Foster and Hawkes exchanged a glance. The thin smiles on their faces only reminded William that he hardly knew these men. Most of the officers he had been familiar with had died months ago. The rest had been killed or captured at Chantilly.
There was another thud and a wail that mounted to a scream. William looked up, searching for the rebel battery. The creek was completely obscured now. The day gone. Wasted. The dusk sky had begun to fill with clouds. A wind filtered through his clothes and he felt a deep tiredness. Tomorrow it could be over. It is a world and a time of trouble, he thought, but it can end here if God wills it.
The evening slipped by. William and his officers shuffled papers by dim lamplight. And it began to rain.